Peak Travel

Paul Raven @ 05-01-2011

Trends suggest that the demand for transit is flattening out in the industrialized West. Ars Technica:

… prior to recent years, two forms of transit have driven most of the growth in miles travelled, and thus energy use: air and car travel. And, although air travel has continued to increase, car travel has started to decline (a trend that predates the oil price shock of recent years). As a result, since 2003, total miles travelled have flattened out and has started to decline in some countries. This flattening out is even more apparent when graphed against per-capita GDP. Here, most countries show a flattening out once they hit a per-capita GDP of $25,000 (in the US, the figure is $35,000, while Sweden shows a continuing rise).

There are lots of individual features hidden within these general trends. For example, the US drop in the energy intensity of car travel stalled once milage standards languished in the 1990s. In contrast, European countries started raising their gasoline taxes around the same time, and experienced the opposite trend. Longer flights are also less energy intensive, which means that domestic air travel is less energy-intensive in nations like the Australia, Canada, and the US simply as a function of geography.

Nevertheless, the authors argue that the GDP-related trends, which are more consistent across countries, suggest that there might be some common factors underlying the decline in travel, such as urbanization, increased taxes, aging populations, a saturation of automobile ownership, and a basic desire not to spend any more time behind the wheel. Carpooling has also seemed to decline to the point where it probably won’t go down much further.

The folk behind the study are wisely reluctant to project into the future, though they suggest that “continued, steady growth in travel demand cannot be relied upon.”

I fully suspect that the next few weeks will see a rash of pundits suggesting that this flattening of trends means we can stop worrying about carbon emissions and climate change, to be met by a rash of counter-claims at the opposite extreme; between all the shouting, nothing of note will be achieved. Both sides can call me back when they start basing their narratives on the evidence, rather than crowbarring the evidence into their narrative. This Red vs Blue bullshit is starting to bore me.

I always knew they’d prove precognition was real!

Paul Raven @ 17-11-2010

Well, not really (or at least not for a long time), but I couldn’t resist the title. So, here are some bits from Wired Science‘s piece on Daryl Bem’s new paper entitled “Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect”… which purports to contain experimental evidence of precognition in human minds.

Bem’s experimental method was extremely straightforward. He took established psychological protocols, such as affective priming and recall facilitation, and reversed the sequence, so that  the cause became the effect. For instance, he might show students a long list of words and ask them to remember as many as possible. Then, the students are told to type a selection of words which had been randomly selected from the same list. Here’s where things get really weird: the students were significantly better at recalling words that they would later type.


The power of Bem’s paper is cumulative. In total, he describes the results of nine different experiments, conducted on more than 1000 subjects. All of the experiments revealed slight yet statistically significant psi anomalies, with an average effect size of 0.21 across all experiments.

However, the real contribution of this paper isn’t even these statistically significant results. Instead, it’s Bem’s attempt to create rigorous, well-controlled tests of psi that can be replicated by independent investigators. Because here is the dirty secret of anomalous phenomena like telepathy and clairvoyance: They’ve been demonstrated dozens of times, often by reputable scientists. (Bem is an extremely well-respected psychologist, best known for his work on self-perception.) Why, then, do serious scientists dismiss the possibility of psi? Why do rational people assume that parapsychology is bullshit? Because these exciting results have consistently failed the test of replication.

According to a footnote on that article, the process of replication (or at least attempted replication) has already begun, and there are links to two sets of negative results.

Now, I’m no psychologist or statistician, but even so, I’m going to maintain a skeptical stance on “psi powers”. While I have vague theories that there’s more to the universe and our place in it than we yet understand, I think the notion of clairvoyance or “seeing the future” is – at best – a massive oversimplification of the sort of quantum weirdness that makes our brains work the way they do, or – at worst – what happens when unlikely but possible lucky streaks intrude themselves into the world of statistical probabilities. (That “slight yet significant” bit always sets my skeptic bell to ringing; how do we know how slight something has to be before it isn’t significant?)

But then you already knew I was I going to say that, didn’t you? 😉

Everybody else is doing a top twenty posts list, so why can’t I?

Paul Raven @ 29-12-2009

To infinity and beyond! Or not...There’s no reason at all, as it happens. And believe it or not, I don’t actually look at the site stats for Futurismic very often, as I prefer to judge the material we publish by the feedback it receives. But as the title suggests, everyone’s doing retrospectives of the year at the moment, and it got me to wondering what the twenty most popular URLs on Futurismic have been in 2009. [image by kevinzhengli]

So, for the sake of my curiosity (and perhaps yours too), here’s the rundown. I’ve removed any blog index pages from the list (ie. the homepage/root URL, and the second and third pages of most recent content) so that it deals only with unique pages of real static content and specific categories.

  1. A cure for radiation sickness?
  2. AN EDUCATION OF SCARS by Philip Brewer
  3. Futurismic fiction submission guidelines
  4. Futurismic fiction index
  5. Stephen King, Amazon’s Kindle and the death of publishing as we know it
  6. Where are the sexy computer games? (this one explains the high click-through on the search terms “sexy games”; heck of a bounce rate there, I’m happy to say)
  7. World’s largest nuclear explosion video (a classic post from 2007 that still brings people in on a daily basis… maybe more video of big explosions is the way forward?)
  8. Those hacked climate e-mails: Good scientists, poor conspirators (no prizes for guessing why this one did so well on pageviews…)
  9. Looming digital dark age
  10. 2009 – the year the physical bookstore lays down and dies? (written almost a year ago to the day, and oddly prophetic when read in parallel with Seth Godin’s post from a few days ago)
  11. Futurismic fiction submission form
  12. WiFi flu (another oldie whose popularity holds up well)
  13. Dune roleplayers in Second Life squelched by IP takedown notice
  14. One-way ticket to Mars, redux
  15. Futurismic columns index
  16. Nietzsche on science fiction
  17. Alpha Centauri ’should have an Earth-like planet’ (check the comments for some bizarre Christian nutjobbery)
  18. SPIDER’S MOON by Lavie Tidhar
  19. ‘Ghost’ Photos through Quantum Physics (nothing like vaguely-explained speculative science to rake in the spiritual techgnostic demographic, it seems)
  20. Moore’s Law gets a new lease of life

So, there you have it. It would be interesting to compare these stats to similar data for material read via the RSS feed (which doesn’t show up on Google Analytics because the content is stored on other servers), but sadly I can’t seem to find a way to do that with Feedburner… so we’ll have to do a sort of straw poll!

What was your favourite (or least favourite) post, column or story of 2009 here at Futurismic?

Games and economic misbehaviour

Tom James @ 03-08-2009

wolfram_fractalsGeorge Dyson has an excellent and compelling essay on game theory, economics, information theory, computer science, banking, finance, technology, and John von Neumann:

We are surrounded by codes (some Turing-universal) that make copies of themselves, and by physical machines that spawn virtual machines that in turn spawn demand for more physical machines. Some digital sequences code for spreadsheets, some code for music, some code for operating systems, some code for sprawling, metazoan search engines, some code for proteins, some code for the gears used in numerically-controlled gear-cutting machines, and, increasingly, some code for DNA belonging to individuals who serve as custodians and creators of more code. “It is easier to write a new code than to understand an old one,” von Neumann warned.

The monograph over on Edge discusses von Neumann’s intellectual antecendants and the development of game theory and statistical modelling. It also includes some interesting commentary on our recent economic difficulties. Definitely worth a read.

[image from kevindooley on flickr]

Psychohistory in the real world

Tom James @ 28-07-2009

crowdResearchers at Indiana University believe that it may be possible to create a real-life version of Isaac Asimov’s concept of psychohistory:

Much as meteorologists predict the path and intensity of hurricanes, Indiana University’s Alessandro Vespignani believes we will one day predict with unprecedented foresight, specificity and scale such things as the economic and social effects of billions of new Internet users in China and India, or the exact location and number of airline flights to cancel around the world in order to halt the spread of a pandemic.

Psychohistory as described by Isaac Asimov holds that “while one cannot foresee the actions of a particular individual, the laws of statistics as applied to large groups of people could predict the general flow of future events.”

This certainly seems similar to the ideas of reality mining discussed here:

Vespignani writes that advances in complex networks theory and modeling, along with access to new data, will enable humans to achieve true predictive power in areas never before imagined. This capability will be realized as the one wild card in the mix — the social behavior of large aggregates of humans — becomes more definable through progress in data gathering, new informatics tools and increases in computational power.

It is an exciting direction, and offers the possibility of a black-swan style technological breakthrough. With improved data, through things like spimes and ubiquitous computing, combined with improved data processing techniques and communications there exists the possibility for a new and powerful way of studying, monitoring, and even controlling social and technological developments with precision.

[via Next Big Future][image from woodleywonderworks on flickr]

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